Has the War on Drugs got it all wrong? A new research study finds use of hallucinogens, including psychedelic “magic” mushrooms, mescaline, and LSD, doesn’t cause long-term psychological problems. In fact, use of psychedelics may even reduce the need for mental health treatments.
There’s a renaissance happening around hallucinogens. Westerners seeking physical and emotional healing are traveling deep into Amazon jungle territory to drink a potent plant brew called ayahuasca, rich in DMT, “the spirit molecule.” [Full disclosure: I recently traveled to the Colombian rainforest to drink ayahuasca under the supervision of shamans.] They’re also venturing into West Africa for iboga healings with the Bwiti tribe in order to cure themselves of addiction to drugs like heroine. Others are participating in studies, like those conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is proving the efficacy of MDMA (the active ingredient in the street drug Ecstasy) in treating PTSD and other serious psychological issues. LSD and psilocybin mushrooms are being used to ease the anxiety experienced by cancer patients. Go to any of the myriad music, art and culture festivals or gatherings cropping up around the globe (including those focused on the use of psychedelics), and you’ll find a wide variety of people using hallucinogens in all manners of exploration, from straight up dancing and partying to the ceremonial and healing applications.
Approximately one in six Americans between the ages of 21 and 64 has tried hallucinogens. Still, the substances are highly criminalized, and, perhaps even worse, stigmatized as doorways into madness and addiction. Use of hallucinogens is a practice deemed only slightly acceptable during those experimental college years where promiscuity and binge drinking are also sloughed off as young adult rites of passage. Speaking candidly about the use of hallucinogens is akin to coming out of the closet about being a lesbian or homosexual just a half century ago. Announcing an unconventional sexual orientation would often earn you pariah status; it wasn’t something to discuss with just anybody. And the same goes for the medicinal benefits of hallucinogens. (At the very least, you don’t inhale.) In most social circles in our Western culture, using psychedelics is formidable for anyone over age 21. It’s not casual dinner conversation. Antidepressants and prescription anxiety drugs? Well, they’re the new normal. You can talk about those all you like. But tell the wrong person that you participated in an experimental MDMA trial to deal with crippling PTSD? It’s likely to be almost as mood-altering as the drugs themselves.
But could we be all wrong about psychedelic medicine?
According to researchers out of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Department of Neuroscience who published their findings in the recent issue of the journal PLOS One, there were no links that connected the use of psychedelic hallucinogens to a wide range of mental health problems including mood and anxiety disorders, psychosis and general psychological distress.
The research team reviewed survey data collected between 2001 and 2004 from more than 130,000 randomly selected Americans. More than 20,000 of the subjects admitted to using hallucinogens, and the findings were consistent among the individuals: “The lack of association between the use of psychedelics and indicators of mental health problems in this large population survey is consistent with clinical studies in which LSD or other psychedelics have been administered to healthy volunteers,” the researchers wrote.
NPR reports that the study does have some limitations, however: “It’s possible that healthier people are more likely to take psychedelics than those already struggling with mental illness, for instance.” And the study also didn’t consider dosages or quality of the drugs, nor did it look at family histories of mental health, “which could be an important factor.”
While still illegal in the U.S., the amount of research now being done to explore the potential benefits of psychedelics is increasing. Matthew W. Johnson, a psychologist in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine told NPR that there seems to be “no evidence of overall negative impact — and even some hints of benefit — associated with the use of psychedelics.” Johnson recently explored the effects of psychedelic mushrooms on cancer patients to help them deal with the anxiety and depression around their illness.
MAPS’ groundbreaking work on MDMA and PTSD has already shown that “MDMA in conjunction with psychotherapy can help people overcome PTSD, and possibly other disorders as well.” They note that MDMA is known for “increasing feelings of trust and compassion towards others, which could make an ideal adjunct to psychotherapy for PTSD.”
And while the Norwegian researchers acknowledge their study doesn’t allow conclusions about causality, the team found that there is a lack of evidence “that psychedelics cause lasting mental health problems.”
Mental health issues in the U.S. are skyrocketing, based on prescription drug sales for mood enhancers and antidepressants. As Americans struggle to handle their mental conditions, just as many struggle to get a grip on healthy eating habits, the pro-psychedelic community is hopeful that a return to more ‘natural’ treatments for mental and emotional issues may begin to become less stigmatized. And what researchers are finding supports the theories that there may not only be a reduced risk of harm from hallucinogens, but inherent mental health benefits to exploring those edge realms of consciousness as well.
Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, which require long-term usage, and can include numerous undesirable side-effects, a few “psychedelic sessions” can help individuals to acknowledge, confront and resolve certain issues, particularly those that are mental, psychological or emotional–which can often manifest as physical conditions. According to MAPS, “The deep personal and often spiritual experiences enabled by the careful use of psilocybin and LSD are well known.”
Timing of the research couldn’t be better for mood-altering substances, either. CNN’s chief medical expert, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, recently apologized for “misleading Americans” over the safety and benefits of medical marijuana. He’s released a documentary on the subject and said “sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.” Perhaps he’ll explore LSD next.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger